World·CBC Explains

'Kyiv' or 'Kiev' — Here's why the difference is political

CBC has been using a transliteration based on the Ukrainian spelling of the name of the capital, Kyiv, instead of the Russian one, Kiev. Here's why.

CBC has been using a transliteration based on the Ukrainian spelling of the capital

Kyiv versus Kiev: Why how you say it matters

1 year ago
Duration 1:00
The way you say Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, is significant and can even be interpreted as a political statement. Here’s how to pronounce it.

As Russian forces continue to attack Ukraine's cities, forcing more than a million people to flee the country so far, onlookers around the world may be noticing different spellings and pronunciations of the name of the country's capital.

CBC has been using a transliteration based on the Ukrainian spelling of the name: "Kyiv" (pronounced "KEE-ef"). The Russian version is "Kiev" (pronounced "kee-EV").

Kyiv or Kiev?

Kiev was the internationally accepted English-language spelling through the Soviet period and into the first years of this century.

But, according to Natalia Khanenko-Friesen, director of the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, the name "Kiev" is now associated with the Russification of Ukraine. In recent years, more and more publications, governments, airports and geographical dictionaries have switched the spelling to the Ukrainian variant, she said.

"The fact that we have been using the word 'Kiev' for so long has something to do with the history of the region ... the history of the relationship between the Russian Federation and Ukraine," said Khanenko-Friesen.

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1 year ago
Duration 0:52
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Khanenko-Friesen noted that the region formally became part of the Russian Empire in the 17th century and only declared itself an independent country in August 1991, shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Many people still speak both Russian and Ukrainian, and in 2001, the last time a census was taken, about 17 per cent of the population was Russian although some have pointed out that that 20-year-old data doesn't capture the changes of recent years.

The transliteration "Kyiv" was legally mandated by the Ukrainian government in 1995, but the new name only started gaining traction a few years ago when the Ukrainian government mounted a campaign to secure international approval for the name of its capital city. 

"Ukrainian diaspora ... have been very vocal in this transition, and we've seen important changes," said Khanenko-Friesen.

"We've seen media changing the spelling, transliteration and now pronunciation. We now see the use of the Ukrainian word 'Kyiv' in the IT domain. People can now book tickets to Kyiv online by operating with the new spelling rather than the old one."

Why is CBC using 'Kyiv'?

On Tuesday, CBC's chief pronunciation counsellor, Laura Carlin, said in a note that CBC would be using the Kyiv transliteration based on the Ukrainian spelling.

"While language does evolve, we generally change place-name pronunciations only to reflect a true shift in how people in English-speaking Canada refer to a country or to match widespread shifts in transliterations ... or to eliminate pronunciations that are truly problematic," she said.

She said "Kyiv" falls into all three categories. 

CBC reporters may often use an anglicized pronunciation of "Kyiv," but this is already common practice when, for example, using English pronunciation for "Paris" or "Mexico." 

"For a foreign-language speaker, Ukrainian is not an easy language to master, and the pronunciation 'KEE-ef' is really a great approximation of how the word Kyiv sounds in the native Ukrainian language," said Khanenko-Friesen.

Pronunciation is political

Khanenko-Friesen says the spelling and pronunciation of "Kyiv" is significant during this "time of aggravated assault on the sovereignty and integrity of the Ukrainian state."

"Using, right now, the Ukrainian pronunciation of ... the capital is a very small choice one can do in recognition that Ukraine does have the right to exist as an independent nation, contrary to what Vladimir Putin has been stating in his recent statements and addresses to his nation."